Where’s the congee?

Chiang Mai runs to a seemingly invisible timetable. The canteen that’s about 30 seconds from my current apartment sells Thai-style Hainanese chicken rice on weekend mornings, but not weekday mornings. The cavernous open-air eatery is otherwise completely empty during the week and, somewhat surprisingly, no one sets up shop there in the evenings. Then there are the street vendors who drive their wares around town on a cart attached to a scooter and I’m trying to work out when and where they appear. The woman who sets up about 100m from my office is there on weekday mornings till about 8.30am, and the banana pancake guy seems to set up around there at 5.30pm, though he’s not there every day.

This morning for breakfast I wanted something a bit different, so I went back to the very first place I visited two weeks ago, the humble eatery on the main road. It was very busy with a large crowd of people who were similarly hungry. There was a stall selling rice with all kinds of delicious stir-fries which I took a good look at, but I decided to go over to the stall where I had bought the rice noodle soup. It was actually closed but in its place was a weekday morning-only stall selling deep fried dough sticks.

A man was rolling  endless quantities of dough into skinny sausages before dropping them into a huge vat of oil that a woman was watching over. Her job was to fish out the dough sticks when they were done to crispy perfection. I’ve had these dough sticks countless times before – in Vietnamese they’re called gio chao quay which I’m sure must be similar to what they’re called in Cantonese – but we have them as an accompaniment to congee (chao). I’ve never dreamed of eating them on their own, though the thought has been tempting – and yet that seems to be how they’re eaten here. Thais have yet to develop a fear of deep fried food – it can be a real mission to find food here that isn’t fried! As I can’t really speak Thai yet and the vendor couldn’t speak English, it was impossible for me to ask them, “Where’s the congee?” But my lifesaver this morning came in the form of a random ‘foreign’ woman who came to the stall – a blazing red-head – who seemed to be very fluent in Thai. I immediately turned to her to ask her in English what the deal was with this food. She replied with an Australian accent that they don’t sell congee here and instead, people usually have the fried dough sticks with a glass of hot soy milk which they were also selling. I thanked her effusively for explaining it all to me before I also bought a bag of soy milk to go with my takeaway order.

As I walked away munching on one of the dough sticks, I couldn’t help but reflect that there’s still a long way for me to go before I get a sense of how things work here. Not just the invisible timetable that governs this city, but also the everyday rules which everyone here takes for granted. Like the fact that you eat gio chao quay without chao; something I’ve always felt was completely indulgent which has turned out to be completely normal here.

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